Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2687
God: creator of Heaven, the new world (Earth), and a new race called Man
The Son: sits on the right hand of God, the Father; volunteers to go down to Earth and give his life as a ransom for Man’s sins
Uriel: the angel of the sun; one of seven archangels who stands ready at God’s command
The poet opens Book III with an invocation to “holy Light,” the essence of God. “Since God is light,” it has coexisted with him eternally and flows from His very being. This light, the poet says, was the first thing to appear in God’s creation, emanating from him as the “offspring of Heaven first-born.” The poet has come out of utter darkness (Hell), passed through middle darkness (Chaos), and has now reached the safe environs of God’s holy light. The poet is blind, however, and must depend solely on his inner vision for divine inspiration. He invokes the muse of Sion and visits the Scriptures nightly for spiritual enlightenment. In his blindness, he compares his fate to that of Thamyris Homer (Maeonides), Tiresias, and Phineus and wishes to equal them in fame also. Since his blindness has cut him off from the book of “Nature’s works,” he asks that the divine light of inspiration grant him inner eyes that he might see and tell things that are invisible to other mortals.
The “Almighty Father” sits on his throne in Heaven with his Son on his right hand and a myriad of angels gathered around him as “thick as stars.” From above, he views his entire creation at a glance and watches Adam and Eve in their happy state in Eden. As his eyes survey Hell and Chaos, he detects the figure of Satan who is preparing to land on God’s newly created world. God perceives Satan’s need for “desperate revenge” and predicts that Satan’s lies to Man will cause him to transgress. He has these feelings with his Son. Breaking God’s command and his pledge of obedience, Man and his progeny will fall through nobody’s fault but their own since they have been given free will. All created beings were given free choice, God says, and cannot justly accuse their Maker of a predestined fate that has governed their condition.
Even though God possesses the foreknowledge of Man’s fall and all other future events, he does not foreordain those events but allows freedom of choice to all created beings. The fallen angels erred by their own suggestion, God says, and will not be given grace. On the other hand, Man will be granted mercy and justice since his fall will be brought about by the deception of Satan.
As God speaks, an “ambrosial fragrance” wafts through the air, and the angels are filled with a new joy. The Son’s face shines with a light of divine compassion, reflecting the love and grace of God, his Father.
The Son praises God’s compassion for Man whose fall, “though joined/ With his own folly,” will be artfully maneuvered by the fraudulent Satan. God is a wise judge, the Son says, who will not allow Satan, their Adversary, to draw the whole race of mankind into Hell with him and, thereby, thwart God’s purpose.
God commends the Son for reflecting his Father’s thoughts and assures him that Man will not be lost but will be given grace. He will be saved if he chooses, yet he will owe his deliverance to God who will place an “umpire Conscience” within the race of Man, warning them of their sinful state. This will be a reminder to them that they must pray, repent, and show obedience to God. Those who harden their hearts with neglect and scorn will be excluded from God’s mercy.
There can be no justice, however, unless someone is willing to pay the ultimate price, his life as a ransom for Man’s sins. God calls for a volunteer, but the heavenly choir stands mute. Out of the silence the Son of God speaks, offering to go down to Earth and die for the sake of Man. The Son has the assurance that he will not stay in the grave but will “rise victorious” and conquer his enemy, Death. He promises to bind the “powers of darkness” and lead the redeemed to Heaven where there shall be no clouds of anger but only joy in God’s presence.
The Son is now silent, but his face shines with “immortal love/ To mortal men.” All the heavenly angels are filled with admiration, wondering what this might mean. God explains that the Son will become a man, born “by wondrous birth” to a virgin as one of Adam’s descendants. Through Adam all men will die, but through the Son all who renounce their unrighteous deeds and receive new life will be saved. By descending to the nature of Man, the Son will not be degraded, however. Because he has offered to leave his throne in Heaven to save the world, the Son has been found to be worthy of maintaining the position of the Son of God. Love, rather than birthright, has proven his true merit. Through humility he has been exalted to the throne and shall reign as Son of both God and Man. In the last days, he will appear in the sky and judge the living and the dead from past ages. The wicked shall sink into Hell that will thereafter be sealed. A new Heaven and Earth will spring from the ashes of the burning world. Here the just will dwell, seeing golden days when Joy, Love, and Truth will be triumphant.
The Almighty instructs the angels to adore the Son and honor him as God’s equal. Loud hosannas fill the air and the heavenly angels cast down their crowns in adoration of the Son. They then raise their harps and crown their heads again, preparing to play a symphony in adoration of their Omnipotent and Eternal King. Songs of praise are addressed to the Son for overthrowing the warring angels in Heaven. By contrast, in his life on Earth the Son will put an end to strife among men by his own example of mercy, justice, and divine love.
In the meantime, Satan alights on the uninhabited world, a boundless continent of “dark, waste, and wild” land where storms out of Chaos are an ever-present threat. Walking alone, he finds no sign of life. This is the place where men’s works of vanity, such as the Tower of Babel, will be built in the future. It will be called the “Paradise of Fools” where people mistake outward forms of religion for true faith.
As Satan walks in search of Paradise, he reaches a magnificent stairway to Heaven that resembles Jacob’s ladder in the Old Testament. Underneath the stairs flows a sea of jasper and liquid pearl. The stairs are let down, but it aggravates Satan since he is excluded from the entrance to his former home in Heaven. From the lower stairs, Satan suddenly discovers a wide passage continuing down to Earth.
Satan winds his way down with ease, but he approaches other worlds and decides to land on the sun instead. He sees Uriel, the angel of the sun, whose back is turned. Satan changes his shape to a “stripling Cherub” so he can ask Uriel the directions to Paradise. Satan deceives Uriel with hypocrisy when he tells the angel that he wants to see God’s “wondrous work, chiefly Man” so he can glorify God. Uriel praises Satan’s worthy intentions and points out Adam’s bower in Paradise. Satan leaves, bowing low as he shows honor and reverence to a superior angel. Speedily, he flies toward Earth and lands on Mount Niphates.
In Book III, the images of light in Heaven stand in marked contrast to the previous darkness of the infernal regions of Hell. Throughout the poem, symbols of darkness, repeatedly linked with descent or falling, stand diametrically opposed to visions of light that are reached only by the ascent to the celestial light. It is Satan’s sin of pride that has caused his descent into darkness. He has fallen from “the happy realms of light” (P. L., I, 85) onto the “dreary plain . . . void of light (P. L., I, 180–82). By way of contrast, the heavenly angels sing praises to the Son “In whose conspicuous countenance . . . the Almighty Father shines” (P. L., III, 385–86). God’s light shines through the Son, but Satan, who is absent from God, dwells in the darkness of Hell.
Having endured the abyss of “utter darkness,” the poet now leads the reader upward through the area of “middle darkness” to the regions of God’s “holy Light.” In declaring that “God is Light,” the poet borrows from the biblical text. “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all (I John 1:5). God cannot be seen by any man, his essence being “unapproached light” that “Dwelt from eternity.” The biblical source is found in I Timothy 6:16. “Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see.” Later, the angels sing praises to the “Fountain of Light” (God) who is invisible in his glorious brightness, and whom they “Approach not” unless they “veil their eyes” with both wings.
Though the poet’s “dark descent” into Hell has been “hard and rare,” he now feels safe as he re-ascends into the realm of God’s light, but, ironically, he is blind. Dolefully, he grieves his loss of sight as he reflects on nature.
Thus with the year
Seasons return; but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer’s rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead.
P. L., III, 40–45
He has been shunned from “the book of knowledge fair.” Since the days of Aristotle people had believed that knowledge was to be acquired through nature. Sight was, therefore, a necessity for the observation of the beauty of the seasons, the changes of day and night, the varieties of plants and animals, and the “human face divine.” Since wisdom through physical sight is “quite shut out,” the poet will explore the mind’s inward eyes so that he might see “things invisible to mortal sight.”
Milton’s use of the epic simile is an effective comparison between the stairway to Heaven, encountered by Satan on his way to Eden, and the biblical story of Jacob’s ladder. “The stairs were such as whereon Jacob saw/ Angels ascending and descending, bands/ Of guardians bright, when he from Esau fled.” In the biblical account, Jacob is fleeing to avoid being killed after he has deceived Isaac by impersonating his brother, Esau. Falling asleep, Jacob “dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Gen. 28:12). Though the imagery is comparable, Satan and Esau are depicted with opposing characteristics. When Esau sees the stairway in his dream, he is filled with fear and reverence to God. But when Satan sees it, he simply stands on the “lower stair” and is filled with envy as he catches sight of the fair World that God has created for Man.
In Paradise Lost, God is, paradoxically, “unapproached light,” yet Milton draws him as a character who carries on a conversation with his Son. Though some commentators have interpreted the dialogue between God and the Son in Book III as mere theological dogma, a mouthpiece for Milton, Irene Samuel, refutes this idea, arguing that readers have “misconstrued as dogma what Milton intended as drama” (Irene Samuel, The Dialogue in Heaven: A Reconsideration of Paradise Lost, p. 235). Milton sets the scene for the dramatic interchange between God and the Son by contrasting the “holy Light” of Heaven to the “utter darkness” and “middle darkness” of the first two books.
God, being omniscent, immediately sees Satan who is loose in the universe and bent on “desperate revenge.” In a rather prosaic way, God voices his foreknowledge of the fact that Satan will falsely pervert mankind with his guile, causing Man to fall. God informs the Son and the angels that he created Man and all “Ethereal Powers . . . Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” In this way, God has the assurance of the “true allegiance” of the faithful ones.
In his benevolence, God announces to the Son and the crowd of angels in Heaven that Man, deceived by Satan, “shall find grace.” The Son responds with passionate praise to the Father not merely for the love and justice he shows to Man, but also for his resistance to Satan’s devious plan of drawing all of mankind into Hell and, thereby, thwarting God’s purposes. Though he speaks with respect and reverence, the Son, displaying an independent spirit, informs God that allowing Satan to carry out his revenge would have invited much-deserved criticism of the “goodness” and “greatness” of God.
God continues, telling the Son and the angels that someone must pay the price for Man’s sins. God asks for a volunteer to go down to Earth and become Man. The Son offers to give his life as a ransom for Man’s sin. He will break the bonds of Death, returning to Heaven with the multitude of the redeemed to live forever in peace and joy. This is reminiscent of the infernal council in Hell when a volunteer is needed to spy on God’s new creation, Man. Satan volunteers, but his purpose, in contrast to the Son’s, is his own ambition for power. He would rather “reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven” (P. L., I, 263). Satan’s offer, unlike the Son’s, has been contrived and is manipulated by Beelzebub who simply echoes Satan’s own original plan. When the Son humbly volunteers to descend to Earth and give his life as a ransom for Man’s sin, he is exalted through his humility. God promises that the Son’s nature will not be degraded. “Therefore thy humiliation shall exalt/ With thee thy manhood also to this throne.” When Satan proudly volunteers to go to Earth, he is, by contrast to the Son, humiliated. In his desperate attempt to exalt himself, Satan later arrives in Pandemonium, boasting about his “success against Man” but instead of applause, he is, ironically, degraded when he is met with the general hiss of serpents (P. L., X, “The Argument”).
In the dialogue between God and the Son, Milton reveals his theological views concerning the salvation of mankind. At the heart of his beliefs is the idea that Man was created with free will. God says, “I formed them free, and free they must remain.” Though Man’s salvation comes through God’s grace, God makes it clear that to be saved requires Man’s willingness. “Man shall not quite be lost, but sav’d who will,/ Yet not of will in him, but grace in me/ Freely vouchsafed.” God declares that nobody can be reprobated unless they do not repent of their sins.
When Satan leaves the stairway to Heaven, he decides to alight on the sun where he will ask Uriel, the angel of the sun, to direct him toward Eden. Satan quickly changes into a stripling Cherub so Uriel will not recognize him as a demon escaped from Hell. Lying to Uriel, Satan tells the angel that he wants to find God’s newest creation so he can admire them and send his praise and honor to God, their creator. Uriel believes the story of the “false dissembler,” the poet says, since neither angels nor Man can recognize hypocrisy. It is “the only evil that walks/ Invisible, except to God alone.”
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support